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On their records, the Clientele sound hazy. Playing in 100-degree heat, they look that way too.
Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church is a fine place to purvey your praise to the oneness of God, but as a musical venue (and in a heat wave, no less), it’s a sweatshop. Fortunately for us, if not the bands, a less-than-stellar turn-out meant there was some air around those of us who did attend. A hundred or so people spread out around the room, making sure to keep at arm’s length from one another in an attempt to avoid forming strange, sticky bonds.
At first it looked as though the oppressive heat had put everyone off the evening. Arriving 45 minutes after the doors opened, we found 20 people lounging around on the floor, taking comfort in whatever breeze they could find. Instead of sweating the wait out, we high-tailed it to an air-conditioned bar nearby and bandied back a few beers before returning to find support act the Great Lakes taking the stage.
At one time a nine-piece band loosely linked with the Elephant 6 collective (they shared members with Of Montreal and Elf Power), Great Lakes now function as a trio. While songs from their first album, such as “Storming”, lacked the intricate instrumental fills that their previous incarnation provided, the newer tunes are well suited to a three-piece. Taking their cues from antipodal acts like the Clean and the Go Betweens, the band’s set ranged from rocky to rolling; it was the latter, more countrified songs that came across best.
As we waited for the Clientele to take the stage, sweat ran down the crevice of my back. A palm-shaped wicker fan, attached to my girlfriend’s hand, whipped the arid air around us. I felt like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now: pampered, parched, and a little putrid. Indeed, if that film were re-shot in the River Thames on a rainy day and starred the elusive K, as in the character from last year’s Strange Geometry, instead of Colonel Kurtz, the Clientele would be the perfect band to soundtrack it ; they’re all hallucination and haze.
Formed in 1997, the London-based trio have released three albums and a slew of singles and EPs, most of which were visited this evening. On this, the first show of their current U.S. tour, the band—Alasdair Maclean (guitar and vocals), James Hornsey (bass), and Mark Keen (drums)—were joined by Mel Draisey, who filled out the sound with violin, keyboard, and extra percussion.
Despite the fact that the band’s latest release is their best, it was the older songs that got the biggest reaction. “Saturday” (introduced by Maclean as a “Slow dance, ladies’ choice”) and “We Could Walk Together” garnered great applause—applause that I tried to telepathically suppress. Did these people not know they were creating kinetic energy? More heat? It was only after my girlfriend explained that they were in fact moving the air around, creating wafts of cold wind, that I joined in.
And the Clientele did, after all, deserve the accolades. Their songs tended to boil, starting off with nothing but sparse plucking and MacLean’s high, lonesome, echo-laden enunciation. Rippling, the rhythm section would kick in, as they built up a full head of steam then burst into a celebratory cinematic panorama. It was the sound of the Byrds chiming their way through a cover of “Whiter Shade of Pale” or the coda from “Strawberry Fields Forever” played by Galaxy 500. Maclean’s finger-picked, reverb-laced melodies were part maven, part mariachi. His voice was ethereal, evoking images of “summer crowds in Europe” and “the jade and coolness of the evening light.”
Some songs suffered from the heat, solos sounding out of tune—the musical equivalent of Dalí‘s melting clocks. Notes drooped as soon as they were free of the fret board, the humidity playing with the heads. Other songs sounded a little languid, samey—a minor complaint that can also be leveled against the band’s albums. Of course, the band soon shook up the reverb-laden formula with a new song titled “Disco Song”, which is all ringing bar chords and barbed bon mots.
Final song “My Own Face Inside the Trees”, from Strange Geometry, picked up the pace with keyboards. It was pastoral pop at its best, featuring a melody that bounded along with the relentless energy of a child playing hopskotch on hot coals.
During the show, Maclean acknowledged the heat, stating that the last time that they played Philadelphia, it was also this hot. “I have nothing but pity for you,” he said. A beat, and then: “And obviously, strong respect.”
You’re the ones touring America in the middle of August. Trust me, the feeling is mutual.
The Clientele - Reflections After Jane